Saturday, January 26, 2019

Spiritualism: Sensing Spirit

Having noted before certain aspects relating to divination in Espiritismo, I come back to it at least briefly in this post. For the Espiritista, divination is not so much a learned mechanical procedure with certain constant registers or meanings as it is an experiental process or phenomenon. It is, according to Espírito Santo, not so much "read off" as "read in." 

I view it perhaps somewhat differently as being a process of extracting understanding or interpretive possibilities from experience. That experience may be mental, emotional, of bodily sensation, or worldly observation.

One may simply become aware of answers when focused, or the medium may find it necessary to somehow translate a range of emotional feelings or physical sensations into meaning. Alternately, the medium may see in the world "beyond their own body" interpretable signs, be they originating from everyday occurances in the world or by looking at a set of object that the medium interprets, such as shells, coconuts, cards, etc.,

The means by which these are interpreted as noted in other posts, may not be formulaic. Rather, they are often fluid and inspirational in origin, often through a process that the medium may intuitively understand, but be incapable of explaining or reducing to a series of steps or instructions.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Relationship between Espiritismo and Afro-Cuban Religions

Just as there are different Afro-Cuban Religions, there are a number of forms of Espiritismo extent in Cuba today. These include Cordón (Orile), Caridad, and Cruzado, the last which may also be described as Espiritismo Popular Cubano.

In discussing the unique connection between Espiritismo and Afro-Cuban Religions, the majority of our attention will be given to Cruzado, and the reason for that will be made clear.

Apart from among a few people, notably in the US, where Afro-Cuban Religions have gained some small popularity,, Espiritismo is closely tied to all the Afro-Cuban Religions and plays an integral, supportive role in the spiritual development and practice of their adherents.

 Converted communities outside Cuba may on occasion have Cuban origins, but often are non-Cuban whether Latino or not. Many of these groups of necessity, rely on the interpretation of one or maybe two individuals augmented by literature, and as a result may lack a broader experiential sense of what is  understood as normative within the native Cuban context. I often hear positions defended with the explanation that "my godfather said that..." or "we do/don't do that in our house." Both of those are perfectly fine explanations for why you may practice a certain way. They are not a basis for extrapolating an overarching value which privileges any given practice over others. In other words, just because you do it that way doesn't make your way more correct, nor ever more rational. It just makes it your way.

In contrast I have inquired in Cuba, the home of these traditions, as broadly as possible, what people do, and don't do. Some of that concurs with the practice in my own lineages, and some contrasts with them. What I get from this is that while there are some small numbers whose practices may vary in significant ways from the norm, and some may offer negative opinions of these more significant variations, there are many more minor variations in practice and in attitude, and such minor variations seldom are commented upon. The upshot of all that is that it is possible to charactize, at least in broad terms, what is the most common practice.

The following comments explain how Espiritismo came to be closely associated with Afro-Cuban Religions, and why it both makes sense and is a valid practice.

Afro-Cuban Religions, as they evolved into their contemporary forms in the late 1800s shared a variety of similar social and political experiences. All of them, as a result of the experience of slavery, had effectively lost the cult structures of their various African homes related to the veneration of both the recent dead and familial dead. West African Egungun traditions survived in one single location in Brazil, but not at all in Cuba. Traditional Kongo ancestral veneration required both family elders and the accumulated remains of the dead in their traditional homeland, which of course could not even be approximated in the new world. In both those examples, veneration of the generah and ancestral dead had always been a separate cult with a separate priesthood.

The arrival of espiritismo provided a widely available and flexible substitute which Afro-Cubans found appealing and adaptable to their needs. It had the added advantage of being perceived as socially acceptable.

North American Spiritualism arrived in Cuba in the 1850s with Kardecist Spiritism arriving a decade or more later. It was soon noticed and emulated by Afro-Cubans, who embraced the practice, as did slaves and Free People of Color in other parts of the Americas, most notably among Haitians, Creoles in New Orleans, and in Brazil.

The early development of Cuban Popular forms of Espiritismo, folk or Afro-Cuban Espiritismos if you will, cannot be charted or dated with certainty. While it might be tempting to speculate about what the earliest predecessors of these Espiritismos looked like, barring the discovery of new documentation, such speculation would consist of equal parts guess work and wishful thinking.

It is safe to say that modern uniquely Cuban forms of Espiritismo, while probably coming into existence a few short years after the documented arrival of Espiritismo in 1856, did not come to be a documented movement before the foundation of the first Templo Cordonero, in Monte Oscuro n 1905. Named Buscando Luz y Verdad; it was founded by Salustiano Olivera, a veteran of the Cuban war of independence.

At what time the Espiritismo often called cruzado or cruzao came to approximate its current forms (because it is a varied and idiosyncratic practice) it is impossible to say with certainty. Even its proper name is debateable. The name was apparently coined by Cuban anthropologists to describe any form of Espiritismo practices being performed in conjunction with any Afro-Cuban Religiion, a practice which seemingly was normative and not new enough to deserve comment within the religious community as early as the 1920s.

Many who practice Espiritismo Cruzado simply refer to their practice as Espiritismo. Although some have no problems embracing the term Espiritismo Cruzado, other object, due to the multiple meanings the word "cruzado" has. While it was coined by Cuban academics to describe an Espiritismo which is perceived as mixed with Afro-Cuban Religion(s), and in that sense the term is both correct and neutral, being devoid of value judgement, the word also has a coloquial meaning used to describe something which is mixed-up, messed up, or incorrect. Those who object to the term assert that there's nothing wrong with the way they practice Espiritismo, and of course, they are correct.

Until a better and catchier term presents itself, Cruzado or Cruzao is a convenient name. It represents those forms of Espiritismo used in concert with Afro-Cuban Religions. As long as we keep in mind that this refers to a range of practices and not a monolithic tradition with a fixed set of rules, we will remain on target.

Errors and misunderstanding occurs when we try to define fixed boundaries based upon narrow definitions and visions.  If you cannot be comfortable with a degree of contradiction, then none of these traditions are right for you.
Misas are the common group ritual, and almost the only one that most in North America are familiar with. They're also often quite different from what North Americans are exposed to. In spite of that, most work in Espiritismo is done at the boveda and or in consultations.

Cruzado has its own pantheon of spirits and also may deal directly with ancestors. It's connections with Palo should need no explanation, as the most common and numerous spirits in Espiritismo Cruzado are the Congos and Congas.  The logic which gives Espiritismo a presence and infuence in Ocha comes from Ocha itself which maintains that Iku lobi Ocha, the dead give birth to the saints.
Cuban culture is distinct from those of other Caribbean nations, even the Spanish speaking ones. The nation that comes closest to Cuba in its multiplicity of African ethnicities and religion

 Brazil, is still very different due to its geographical expanse. For all the sense of "shared experience" and sympathy, the culture and traditions of Cuba are not those of the DR much less Puerto Rico. Cuba had to develop ways of speaking across ethnic divides that Puerto Rico never had to, and that the DR largely has failed to do.

The way in which Espiritismo Cruzado bridges the divide between secular, non-initiate, and spiritual sectors of popular culture and Cuba's various ethnic subcultures, is very much a part of this Cuban accommodation of ethnic difference while asserting a cultural commonality called Cubanidad.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Commissions: A Bantu Influence in Cuban Spiritism

There are certain elements within a number of religions with Bantu influences that are often not recognized as being representative of Bantu origin. One of these is the association of spirits in "filial" groups. Such groupings are not by any means universal, nor do they present themselves in exactly the same way even when they are present. While common in Brazilian Umbanda, they are absent in Cuban Palo. It is none the less, possible to identify this phenomena in several especially Bantu ethnic tradiitions in Africa, and in both the Caribbean and South America.

In southeastern and southern Bantu traditions among the Shona, Swazi, BaTonga, Xhosa, and others, certain categories of spirits are identified by ethnicity. A similar structure is visible in certain forms of Mbundu religions in Angola, and these are likely the source of the Falanges of Umbanda and the Comiciones of Cuban Popular Espiritismo, also called Cruzado.

While different sorts of spirits existed and exist in Spiritualism and Kardecist Spiritism, including for example spirits of Indians (Native Americans), Mariners, and Hindus, these are individuals and there is no sense of these identities representing a formal group or class of spirit possessing certain functions specific to their identity.

This characteristic is present in certain Bantu traditions in Africa, and in Umbanda and Cuban Popular Espiritismos, both of which bear evidence of strong Bantu influence. Kardecism does have spirits who belong to professions such as doctors, teachers, and even lawyers, but they remain largely individuals; where ethnicity is highlighted, it does not usually play a strong defining characteristic associated with the role the spirit plays.

In Brazil, Umbanda evolved as an African derived religion with a strong Bantu core, having to varying degrees depending on the escuela or school (read type) of Umbanda, influences from Kardecism, Native American, or Orixa religion. Umbanda evolved falanges (falanxes) or groups of spirits usually with specific identity type such as Pretos Velhos (black slave spirits), Marinheiros (mariners), Caboclos (Indians), Ciganas (gypsies), etc. In many versions of Umbanda, these groups are headed by a specific Orixa who while sometimes invoked, none the less does not usually appear in possession. Umbandas falanges are large and their attendant spirits often presented as being almost limitless in number Despite this, the majority of Terreiros de Umbanda (temples) work with a very limited number of spirits as a rule.

In the popular or Cruzado form of Espiritismo of Cuba, the term for such groups or families of spirits is usually referred to as Corrientes or Comisiones. Since the term "corriente" has another meaning as well, I choose to refer to them only by the term "comisiones." These families of spirits are at once less formally constituted and less densely populated than their Brazilian counterparts. It should be understood that Umbanda and Cruzado are not versions of each other, but distinct traditions which demonstrate some common influences. While dogmatic Kardeclsts may refer to them as "baixo espiritismo" or "bajo espiritismo" respectively, they are far from being versions of each other. While Cruzado may legitimately be viewed as a popular, perhaps heterodox form of espiritismo, though Umbanda demonstrates many characteristics emblematic of its early influence by espiritismo, it has long since become a religion distinct in its own right.
Comisiones in Cuban Cruzado, are not standardized. There are certain ones which are fairly universal and at least two or three which tend to dominate, most notably the Congos, but the membership and characteristics of such comisiones may be fluid. The names of some may vary, and certain espiritistas may have distinct comiciones for spirits that another may fold into a single group.

Comisiones tend to be identified by either ethnicity or profession, such as Congos, Indios, Gitanas, on the one hand and Medicos, Mariñeros, and Monjas on the other. One reason why the number of comisiones in Cuban Espiritismo are fewer than in Brazilian Umbanda, is that Cruzados comisiones tend to reflect the cultural elements that contributed to Cuban society, either literally, as in the case of Congos, Españolas, and Haitianos, or more mythically as in the case of Indios and Gitanas. It should also be noted that these groups are all described in stereotypical ways based upon 19th century perceptions. Modern PC sensibilities concerning both names and common behaviors carry no weight here. These may be in some cases real ethnicities that existed or exist in Cuban society, but their real function is more archetypal than literal.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Alterity & Embodiment in Afro-Cuban Caribbean Spiritualities

Two seemingly contradictory elements of experience which none the less in Espiritismo are experienced as closely related are what we call alterity and embodiment. This is in part so because, as Espiritista, the individual is constantly challenging the definition of both the self and the other. For the Espiritista this sounds something like "where is the boundary between me and my muerto(s). Even though the average Espiritista might not consider describing their activities using these words, they will intuitively find themselves in agreement with the explanation that follows.
Becoming both familiar and if not always comfortable with, at least accustomed to sharing their living space with a variety of often distinctly individual spirits is something which Espiritistas must contend with early on. The degree to which they are successful or not will determine their recognition as a good or poor medium. This is where the issue of embodiment comes in.
The reason for that is that the living space being referred to here is not a room or a home, but rather the body of the medium itself. The presence of multiple entities identified to varying degrees as distinct personalities necessitates accommodation. No example is more dramatic than the case of that phenomenon we call "fully unconscious possession" in which the "person" or personality of the medium is totally but temporarily replaced by that of the spirit.
While this form of mediumship is common in Cuban Espiritismo and is the norm for the overwhelming majority of African Traditîonal and African Diasporic Religions, in Espiritismo and some variants of Brazilian Umbanda there is also a form of semi-conscious possession, in which the medium is present during possession but the spirit is in control, leaving the medium merely an observer.
These possession experiences may require emotional or psychological adaptation on the part of the medium. Many report that they were reluctant to undergo possession of either variety. While I have only experienced fully unconscious possession, for me the only sense of anxiety I experienced at the onset of what anthropologists and psychologists classically called "the crisis of possession" was the worry I might not succeed. The actual experience has only ever been accompanied by a sense of calm detachment and occasionally a mild sense of amazement. I also felt more energized afterwards rather than the sense of depletion that is often reported by mediums. 
I draw no other conclusions than that the experience is highly individual, and note that the literature discussing this worldwide experience probably includes no more than a handful of direct interviews with mediums. Many of the interviewers came to those encounters with a lot of preconceptions and theoretical biases as well.
Not insignificantly though, while possession is a common phenomenon in Espiritismo, possession mediumship is far from the only type of mediumship and as common as it may be, there are other kinds of mediumships that may make up a greater percentage of the spirit interactions that mediums have to adapt to and develop.
Precisely because possession requires little more of a medium than surrender, these other forms of mediumship can actually be seen as challenging the medium to adjust and adapt in relation to evolving new and different understandings of self, other (spirit), and those shared spaces, most notably body, but also experiences of "not body" more than does possession.
It doesn't require much imagination to conceptualize how experiences of multiple simultaneous consciousnesses, and unconsciousness with reports of possession activity later could raise issues which might give a medium's ego cause for struggle. What however am I referring to as more subtle bodily and "not body" experiences, and how could they potentially be more challenging?
Those other most common forms of mediumship include audencia, videncia, sentencia, and telepática. These terms vary across languages and different times and places offer minor variations in classification. Videncia is psychic vision or sight, sentencia may be any sense such as touch, smell, even temperature changes. Telapática refers to the receipt of knowledge, which may also be referred to in English as clairsentience. These refer to the medium who receives messages from spirits through sight, images internal or external, or feeling touch, smell, or environmental or personal changes of temperature. Other mediums receive information as complete knowledge, they simply know.
These, at first glance "lesser" mediumships, may in fact require more struggle, more dis- and re-integration of self and other, of medium and spirit, than does possession. Two distinct challenges face a medium in the making that may slow their development.
The first is that the medium to be may have expectations of how spirit communication will be experienced as that may not be how spirit will communicate with them. The person who expects or wants to hear a voice but who is clairsentient, may not recognize spirit communication when it arrives. Similarly, if the voice a clairaudient medium hears sounds like their own rather than that of an ancient seer, he or she may question its validity. Learning to discern other within oneself is not always easy.
The challenge then is to be able to alter the awareness of self and other in order to identify inner experience as originating in self or not, and thereby identify and access non-local information. In this process, what is self, where it may reside, and even whether our bodies are solely our own in the purely western sense of self and other is brought into question. The medium as individual is altered, fractured, and ultimately reconstituted in a new, expanded and less bounded form.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Voice of Spirit: Divination & Spiritualism

Divination is about the acquisition of information. But from where and how? Africanists who focus on divination such as Tedlock and Werbner speak of a winnowing process, in which unlimited choice is focused and narrowed to a more and more precise and functional set of information. 

There are other ways of approaching the subject. As Espírito Santo suggests, one approach is not difinitive. It is probable that diviners use other strategies for inciting the flow of knowledge. It is possible that, and at least for the diviner, this is true, prior to any inquiry, knowledge is non-existant. 

It may seem contradictory, and certainly diviners are likely, at least in relation to outside interrogators, to object, but divination does not rely upon tightly rendered repetition of memorized meanings, trigged by the marks that appear as a result of a throw, be it cards, shells, bones, or other objects. It should be obvious that any nuanced reading, despite the existance of fixed interpretation systems such as Ifa, requires that a diviner be free to interpret as no two moments or situations are identical.

There are a variety of ways in which these interpretive needs can be achieved. One is by extrapolating an interpretive narrative from a stereotypical definition in a fixed divination catalogue of meanings. Another is an inventive set of meanings derived from visual stimulus. An example being a reader who allows the cards  to suggest a distinct meaning every time they read. A third is where the mechanical means is simply a device used as a placibo for the client while spirit provides an ongoing narrative to the diviner.

All of these techniques have been used in espiritismo. Espiritistas, unlike Followers of Oricha worship, utilize a wide variety of objects to facilitate divination. A short inventory of the divination tools employed by Cuban Espiritistas past and present include cups of water, mirrors, pendulums, planchettes, shells, cards, and candles. This list excludes the obvious trance state, which is perhaps the most direct form of divination possible.

One fairly consiant fact is that whether cards, some form of lots, water gazing or another method, it is quite common for the espiritista to be trained directlh by spirit to divine. The spirit may do this by means o 

In fact, this diversity mirrors the state of affairs we find in Cuban-Congo relgion, and perhaps unsurprisingly, what can be observed in Central Africa.

Another element that plays a role in the process of communication between medium and spirit is embodied sensation. Certain spiritual messages or spirit actions inspire specific physio-motor sensations such as tingling, itching, twitches, or even pain. These sensations may provide the medium with interpretive understandings.

Dreams are for the Espiritista a powerful form of divination just as they are in all Afro-diasporic traditions. Dream images, whether prosaic ones such as a power outage in a store, or more dramatic ones where bird-headed people appear all serve to provide insights that extend beyond normal awareness. As my own guide said, "when we come down in a drumming or a misa, we visit your world; when you dream, you visit ours.

Divination, for Espiritistas then, is the process of communication with other, with the realm of spirit which is beside us.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Gypsies: Spirit on the Wind

Please keep in mind that the title of this blog, as I have noted previously, includes the phrase "other interesting stuff." 

So, today I am writing on Spiritualism or Spiritism. A subject which has increasingly interested me is the interchange between Masonry, spiritualism, and Afro-Caribbean spiritualities. This entry doesn't directly address those Masonic connections, but others will. I assume that people involved with Afro-Caribbean traditions are more familiar with Masonry than vice-versa. So this may be of interest, although I am not covering basic history or background. It may at least interest esoterically minded masons.

Spirit is the wind. Spirit is smoke. Spirit travels. Spirit is.

Contempory western experience has become all about individualism. In other words, bounded experience in isolation. For most of humanity, the boundary between "me" and "other" is not so stable. Indeed, it isn't for anyone, but we like to pretend it is.

It occurs to me that African Diasporic Religions are not so much "animistic" in the sense that they believe all things have spirit, as they are "animated." I am suggesting they see all things as being potential points which spirit may enter and, and at least temporarily, inhabit. That is a significant distinction. Apart from anything else, it collapses the notion that there is a difference between for example, the spirit which inhabits a human from that which inhabits a rock. The vessel is incidental, which it has to be, since in any case it is only temporary.

All this brings me to the Gypsies, the Gitanas, the Ciganas, the Romany.  

In popular Cuban Espiritismo, the gypsies are represented by fairly stereotypical imagery. Knowledge of Gypsies is in Cuba, a matter of cultural memory. Unlike Haitians, Chinese, Spaniards, or Congos, Gypsies appear to have arrived in Cuba in the barques of memory and dream. There are those, storytellers from the tribes of both journalism and academia, who in the search for new material seem eager to fashion historicity from legend. 

It is improbable that given the porousity of travel from Spain to Cuba in the nineteenth century that no people of Romany extractìon arrived in Cuba, but the absolute lack of formal documentation of their presence establishes with certainty that if any came, their numbers were too few to establish any real community. 

That leaves us with memories, legends, and metaphor.

The Gypsy in Cuba is smoke and shadow; spirits that seem compelled to travel. Most do not peer deep beneath the surface of the popular imagery of Cuban Espiritismo, being more concerned with the practicality of working with spirits for immediate results. That of course, is an acceptable approach.

Those who are looking to develop their gifts, however, may find that beneath the characters or rolej of spirits, perhaps especially the Gypsy, there exists an imaginal hermeneutic, a descriptive language; if you will, a visual roadmap, that can teach us much.

The spirit is a gypsy. Our spirit is a gypsy as much as any spirit is. Spirit is immaterial; animating objects to materialize for a time, or making its presence felt among the living. Indeed, using the expression "our spirit" may hint at a more complex understanding of individual experiece. It suggests we all share a single spirit. At the least that we may experience consciousness in ways and contexts that are unbounded by individual personality.

While people may consider both ancestors and the spirits of one's own guides to be separate from oneself, it is also true that they are not fully so. Our ancestors live on within us materially through our dna - their blood runs in our veins. Similarly, as Espiritu Santo has noted in her book, "Developing the Dead: Mediumship and Selfhood in Cuban Espiritismo," the guides of Espiritismo are both within and without us, "are not just a 'part' of [us], but in fact, interconnected on a number of causal and structural levels." (2015:39)

Gypsies therefore, as a symbolic set of imagery for certain spirits, also provide powerful understandings of archetypal truths about the nature of spirit - those we may have relations with, and indeed our own. Gypsies are travelers. They do not occupy any space for too long, and they make their home where they are. They love the road; in other words they focus on the journey rather than the destination. 

As Essra Mohawk sang, "I am the wind; I can go anywhere, yes, even there..."